By Ray Ryan
Europe's largest pop up town was a blaze of bright lights last night as the tillage fields of Offaly awaited today’s start of the 86th national ploughing championships.
More than 280,000 people are expected to visit the 700 acre site at Screggan, two miles from Tullamore, during the next three days.
Ploughtown was developed over the past seven weeks in accordance with a site plan prepared by architect John Burgess.
But it will disappear just as quickly over the next month as the infrastructure is dismantled and the site reverts to being a working farm.
The championships will cost over €5m to stage and are expected to be worth an estimated €40m to the economy.
Statistics from a survey a few years ago showing that personal shopping accounted for over €7m, trade purchases €9.6m and food expenditure €9.5m are now well exceeded.
A bewildering array of products and services from gourmet sausages to space age farm machinery will be exhibited.
Farmers and fashionastas, prelates and politicians, diplomats and day trippers will attend the event which has grown from a small beginning in 1931 into Europe’s biggest outdoor rural feast.
Transforming green fields into a fully serviced town with electricity, water supplies and almost two million feet of trade space for 1,700 exhibitors was a daunting task.
Ploughtown has pavilions, shopping arcades, and marquees. It has 80 tower lights, 35 street lamps, a medical centre, first aid posts, thousands of electrical sockets, miles of cable and a huge display of machinery valued at over €45m.
It is all linked by 30 kilometres of trackway and features a tented retail village, including a massive Dome with space for over 120 exhibitors.
Television and radio studios, ATM machines, high speed broadband, multiple catering outlets and a centre for the use of many of the 800 media personnel accredited to the event are all place.
Over 350 competitors will take part in ploughing classes. Some 1,000 live animals will on show. And politicians will come face to face with politicans who will quiz them on issues as varied as Brexit and the price of cattle.
There will be attractions as diverse as a pig agility course, wellie throwing and master jiving classes, lifestyle villages, a food fair and three daily fashion shows with models from the Celia Holman Lee agency.
National Ploughing Association managing director Anna May McHugh said the event provides a national stage for showcasing all things agricultural.
But it also brings together people from all sectors of Irish society both rural and urban, to enjoy three days immersed in country living, she said.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, members of the diplomatic corps as well as political, farming and other leaders will attend at various stages over the three days.
Heavy rain in recent weeks rendered the ground soft but with improved drying conditions, remedial works and reasonably good weather being forecast, the organisers say they are looking ahead to another successful championships.
Meanwhile, An Post is celebrating the event with the issue of two new stamps designed by Ger Garland.
Carlow's Eamonn Tracey, who has won seven national tractor ploughing championships in a row, and back to back world contests, is featured on one of the stamps.
Kildare ploughmen Godfrey Worrell and his son Darren, are depicted on the other stamp with their Irish draught horses, Sally and Larry.
The unauthorised flying of aircraft in the airspace over Screggan will be restricted each day of the ploughing during the hours of 9 am and 6 pm.
Small unmanned aircraft including drones and rockets, operating privately or under aerial works, are also subject to the Irish Aviation Authority’s temporary restriction notice.
The purpose is to ensure the safety of aircraft operating into and out of the site and of other air traffic operating in the vicinity.
State aircraft and those of the Irish Coastguard Service employed on an operational mission are exempt from the restriction.
But the operators are urged to make every reasonable attempt to contact Shannon Flight Information Service before entering the restricted air space.
Gardaí will operate a major traffic management plan for the event, which Pressident Michael D Higgins will officially open at noon today.
The NPA has appealed to all motorists to take the advice of the Gardai and stewards and to follow the direction signs.